Safety: When Habits Can Kill

Safety: When Habits Can Kill

New Covid-19 safety protocols require a reset of engrained work habits.
Roger Lis
October 8, 2023

As professionals, we know that safety is all about behavior. In order to achieve high levels of performance and create a culture of safety, we need to engrain safe habits.

Safety professionals and industry leaders spend years learning and forming safe habits with their workers. It is not enough to roll out revised requirements or procedures; we must also direct and motivate the behaviors to support them.

Today, we find ourselves in a new safety reality. OSHA has published guidance on dealing with a COVID-19 workplace that will necessitate implementing new requirements and processes, including protocols for social distancing, new personal protective equipment requirements, self and peer wellness identifications, and new safe practices that change the way we conduct work activities. These changes require us to alter engrained work habits that are the result of years of training and experience. When it comes to achieving this mission, human nature is not on our side.

The way we do work is influenced by a combination of education and experience — years of trial and error. These elements come together in our minds to establish a cadence and a blueprint for how we execute tasks. When a task has been completed a certain way many times, its blueprint is stored in our subconscious mind. As a result, we can do it without engaging in critical thinking, even if the task is complex. When the same task requires a new process or when our process needs to meet a new requirement, it suddenly takes more time, attention, and a complex method of processing that engages both our conscious and subconscious mind.

As professionals and leaders, it’s likely you witness this all the time. Take an electrician with over 30 years’ experience who was taught to strip wire using an open-edge blade. To get that same electrician to use the latest, safer tools to strip that wire will not only require more training but constant direction and motivation to implement the change.

Implementing COVID-19 guidelines will be no different. Companies with changing requirements expect immediate compliance. Some companies now have a zero-tolerance policy that removes employees who violate new safety guidelines. By refusing to take human nature into account, these companies are setting their employees and themselves up for failure. If they don’t take specific actions to motivate and reinforce behavior change, their workers will not be able to meet the new requirements consistently.

What can be done to improve compliance in a short timeframe?

Assess your full program in terms of the required changes.

Avoid turning compliance into a moving target by making sure you fully understand all the changes you’ll need to make before you make them. Hone in on the guidelines and requirements you need to implement and then conduct a vulnerability review of all your current work activity processes. This will arm you with the knowledge you need to make better decisions.

Make employees a part of the solution.

Involve your employees in determining possible solutions. No one understands work processes better than the workers themselves. They will be able to negotiate through disagreement and find the most effective ways to implement changes. In addition, when employees have a stake in the process, they are more likely to hold themselves and their peers accountable for sustaining change.

Direct and motivate the right behaviors.

Once you are clear on the safety behaviors you’re looking for, it is important to design programming with built in reminders and reinforcement. This may include strong engagement processes, reward and recognition programs for compliance, and even peer vs. peer reward competition programs.

Understand the impact of emotions.

As professionals and leaders, it is critical that we understand the emotional impact the climate created by COVID-19 has on people. Increased risk and uncertainty are major stressors that impact people’s ability to think clearly, increasing the likelihood of non-compliance and error across the board. To promote new, safe habits, we need to learn to regulate our emotions and teach our employees to do the same so that everyone is in the right state of mind to work safely. Practicing regulation techniques and building them into our daily practices will be key to managing a higher baseline level of stress.

Follow-up to measure effectiveness.

There’s no magic bullet here, but it’s critical to constantly measure the effectiveness of your program. Conduct surveillance and monitor leading indicators to measure the success of your program and adjust accordingly.

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